Carnival has its historic moments, such as when Rex bows to Comus in the waning hours of Mardi Gras Night, or on the night before when Rex and Zulu push a plunger to ignite a fireworks show over the Lundi Gras sky; but there are more subtle moments that nevertheless ooze with the allusive real spirit of Carnival. For that, the high holy day is on the third Sunday before Mardi Gras (this year Jan. 28) one weekend before the big parades start.
Already by that date the passions have been greased by the rowdy Krewe du Vieux that on the night before walked (“marched” is not quite the word) serpentine-like through the streets of the Marigny and the French Quarter pulling quarter-sized floats displaying the sassiest of satire. But on the day after, the scene shifts uptown. Grit’s Bar (530 Lyons Street at Annunciation) could deservedly be recognized as the epicenter of all street culture. Nearby in this neighborhood that was “multi-cultured” long before the phrase became exhausted from over-use is a float den where two of the city’s parades are built in anonymity, kept secret by the unmarked warehouse that contains them. Down the block is Hansen’s Sno Bliz, home of undoubtably the world’s greatest snowball shop. The Neville Brothers grew up in this neighborhood. F & M Patio, home of late night funk is just around the corner. And for something that oozes with gravy, the neighborhood is also the home of Domilese’s poor boys. Then there are the walking groups that the neighborhood gave birth to; the Jefferson City Buzzards and the Lyons club created in 1890 and 1946 respectively. Both consist of lubricated men who saunter along the Avenue on Mardi Gras morning toward the French Quarter. They do so well rehearsed, for both perform practice marches on that magic third Sunday before. So it happens that anyone in or near Grit’s that afternoon will see the Lyons (whose practice march begins at Grit’s) and elements of the Buzzards (whose club house is nearby up Annunciation Street) muster by. (The Buzzards always dress in drag for the occasion, though no one can confuse the gender behind the beards.) In recent years the Phunny Phorty Phellows have recovered at Grit’s from their 12th Night Streetcar ride by nourishing on crawfish. Like the Tigris and Euphrates merging in Babylon, cultural streams gather at Grit’s.
We worry sometimes about the loss of character in New Orleans, and there are obstacles, but then there are days like that third Sunday at Grit’s where the pageantry has included Buzzards, crawfish and Lyons. For the Phellows the crawfish bounty is quickly depleted, but there is that last slice of king cake. The walls vibrate to the Hawkette’s “Mardi Gras Mambo.” Despite it all, if you go to the right places at the right time, New Orleans is still a special town.